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Qur'anic Invocations: Narrative Temporalities in Twentieth Century Maghrebi Literature


"Qur'anic Invocations: Narrative Temporalities in Twentieth Century Maghrebi Literature" investigates the dialogic relationship between literary and theological discourse in modern Arabophone and Francophone literature of the Maghreb. The novels of al-Tahir Wattar, Assia Djebar, Driss Chraibi and Mahmud al-Mas'adi critically explore the complex colonial histories and conflicted articulations of national identity, language and literature in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. While the 130-year French imperial presence in the region left an indelible cultural and linguistic imprint on the Maghreb, nationalist attempts at homogenizing these countries under a shared Arab and Islamic heritage were equally divisive. This dissertation examines the intersecting discourses of nationalism, modernity and postcolonialism in fiction of the late colonial and post-independence period between 1945 and 1985. I posit that these novels engage with Islamic Thought in order to complicate, nuance or challenge the temporality of these grand historical narratives. In the process, however, they trouble the boundary between 'religious' and 'secular' discourses. In large part, this confluence reflects the very notion of 'Adab' that underwrites both religious and literary discourse in the Arab literary tradition. A concept that historically denoted the moral dimensions of individual and social conduct in the Islamic sciences, 'Adab' also signifies the intellectual pursuit of knowledge and, more currently, the corpus of belle lettres. For while they employ Qur'anic symbology, imagery and motifs, these texts also intervene into debates on the apostolic tradition of hadith, Islamic exegesis, history and jurisprudence. Further, they reimagine the novel in dialogue with and opposition to Arabic and French literary as well as historical discourses. These elements are reflected in the heteroglossic and polyphonic structure of these texts, which undermines historical teleologies and myths of origins.

My first chapter, "Revolutionary Eschatology: Islam and the End of Time in Wattar's al-Zilzal" [The Earthquake, 1974], analyzes Wattar's mobilization of eschatological imagery to question the ideological underpinnings of Algerian nationalist discourse. I explore al-Zilzal's critical engagement with the rhetoric of Arabism and Islamism in post-revolutionary state politics. In my second chapter, "Heterodoxies of History: Algerian National Identity in Djebar's L'Amour, la fantasia" [Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, 1985], I investigate the interweaving of the French colonial occupation and settlement of Algeria with the Arabo-Islamic conquest of the region in the seventh century. I posit that the novel's polyphonic structure and resistance to a single authoritative voice challenges religious, ethnic and linguistic narratives of origins, as well as the politics of transmission and interpretation in Islam. The third chapter, "The Thin Line of Imperialism: Parsing the Qur'an in Chraibi's Le passé simple" [The Simple Past, 1954], examines the controversial representation of French imperialism and Islamic patriarchy as mutually imbricated ideologies. I argue that Chraibi offers an alternative mode of historical and literary temporality in the motifs of the passé simple and la ligne mince. My final chapter, "The Poetic Landscape of Islamic Thought: Creation and Existence in al-Mas'adi's Mawlid al-Nisyan" [The Genesis of Forgetfulness, 1945], explores the novel's fusion of Sufism, Existentialism, Islamic Thought and Arabic literary discourse. Al-Mas'adi's ethical literary project, I suggest, reads artistic representation as a mode of creation.

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